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"That's Funny, You Don't Look American!"

06/16/2015 11:11 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

When I travel in Western Europe, people ask me if I'm Norwegian.

That's always seemed strange, because my descent is Eastern European and Jewish. Now, the Vikings did range as far down as the Black Sea, so maybe some Scandinavian DNA got grafted onto my family tree there somewhere, but if that's the case, those genes must be pretty fierce.

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The first time someone wondered if I was Norwegian, it was actually on a beach in Israel. A new Dutch friend I'd made at a conference came over to me and pointed back to this guy further up the beach and said, "Bjorn wants to know where you're from in Norway."

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I shrugged it off as a fluke, but then it started happening more often, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. I was once having dinner in Braunschweig while on a book tour for my memoir My Germany, and a man sat next to me at the trestle table and said, "I do a lot of business in Norway." That seemed like a bizarre conversation starter. I must have looked puzzled, because he said (still in German), "You're not Norwegian?" I shook my head: "Ich bin Amerikaner." We chatted anyway through our meals in a mixture of German and English, but he looked dubious, maybe because my German was too good in his opinion to be spoken by an American?

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It's happened to me many other times in different ways, and back when my hair was shoulder-length, more than one German told me, "You look like a Viking." Flying home from Berlin on another trip, my Swedish seatmate said half-way through the flight that he was surprised that I had started speaking to him in English because he'd been sure I was Norwegian when he boarded.

I finally thought I had the opportunity to get to the heart of this cultural mystery when I overheard some people at a hotel lobby in New Jersey who were clearly Swedish--and something else. I recognized the sound of Swedish from having watched Swedish movies, and took a guess that the one guy in the group who sounded different was Norwegian. I hoped so, anyway. When he headed off for the men's room and then returned, I intercepted him before he got back to his buddies.

"Are you Norwegian by any chance?"

He nodded. I quickly filled him in on my experiences being taken for one of his countrymen, and asked, "So, do I look Norwegian to you?"

He studied me and shrugged. "What does a Norwegian look like?"

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Lev Raphael is the author of the travelogue/memoir My Germany and 24 other books in genres from mystery to historical fiction which you can find on Amazon.